22 Jul 2015

Legal aid crisis: can Michael Gove end growing case backlog?

As solicitors prepare for crisis talks with Michael Gove over cuts to legal aid fees, their ongoing work to rule is clogging up the legal system. And barristers are due to join the protest on Monday.

The justice system has never been famous for working quickly, but now it is facing a slow-down of epic proportions.

Since 1 July, solicitors across England and Wales have been refusing to work on any new case funded through legal aid in protest at a government decision to go ahead with a cut of 8.7 per cent in the fees they are paid.

Day 22 of the work to rule was marked by a protest outside Westminster Magistrates’ Court.

From Manchester to Bristol, Leeds to Kent, their work to rule has triggered an unsustainable increase in the number of people now having to call on the court-provided duty solicitor, rather than using a solicitor of their own choice.

Duty solicitors

As the protest enters its fourth week, police officers are struggling to find lawyers to attend interviews with suspects – there simply are not enough duty solicitors to go around.

Rather than making a single call to access a solicitor, the Duty Solicitor Call Centre is now having to make 20-40 calls for each case. In London that number can rise to over 100 calls for each person in custody.

The resulting delays mean people are being detained in police stations for longer and more are being released on bail to return at a future date for questioning.

Cases adjourned

Magistrates courts too are feeling the strain. A busy magistrates court might have 50 people appearing in a day, but only one duty solicitor, meaning many are going without legal representation.

Defendant Jamal Madden told Channel 4 News his experience at Bradford magistrates’ court had been “terrible” due to the “waiting and the not knowing.”

Mr Madden said the lone duty solicitor had “got too much on his hands”, adding it had been “the worst day of my life, to be honest with you”. Without seeing a lawyer he pleaded guilty to burglary and his case was sent to the crown court for sentencing.

In some courts the morning list is now finishing as late as 4pm, forcing cases that should have been heard in the afternoon to be adjourned.

And on Monday barristers are due to begin their own protest, creating yet more delays.

Crunch meeting

Michael Gove, who became Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor in the post-election reshuffle, is due to meet a delegation of solicitors’ representatives on Thursday.

Read more - FactCheck Q&A: why are all these lawyers on strike?

Bill Waddington, the chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association told Channel 4 News “We are hoping that the Lord Chancellor will indicate that he is prepared to listen to our arguments”, adding “we remain optimistic”.

The Ministry of Justice said in a statement: “The changes we are making to criminal legal aid are designed to deliver value for money to taxpayers and do not impact on the availability of high quality legal advice to those who need it most.

“Although we recognise that the transition will be challenging for lawyers, these changes will put the profession on a sustainable footing for the long term.

“We have already pledged that an independent review looking at the impact of the new arrangements will begin in July 2016.”